There’s Something About Old Pipes

10th January, 2004: Posted by glpease in Pipes

The aggregation of pipes that I refer to as my collection, though it lacks any sort of cohesiveness that should be present if the title were to fit it accurately, can be loosely divided into two categories - those that I purchased new and unsmoked, and, the larger part, those that I acqired as “estate” pipes. It’s the latter category that has my attention tonight. As I write this, I’m smoking a rather old GBD bent rhodesian. The pipe is lovely in every way. Though it lacks the spectacular straight grain of today’s high-grades, though it’s internal construction may not be as precise or as perfect as that of a modern marvel of briar, it is nevertheless wonderfully cut, comfortable in the hand and between the teeth, made from beautiful wood with wild flames of grain, and nary a sandpit. It is classic and timeless in its shape. I smokes delightfully. Further, it possess something truly special, something that is not, can not be duplicated by any of today’s pipes. It is old.

I have a lot of old pipes. This originally wasn’t something that happened by design, but rather out of necessity. While a student, I couldn’t afford to buy new pipes of high quality, so I, instead, began purchasing estate pipes that seemed to be good ones. I have old Dunhills, GBDs, Charatans, Barlings, Sasienis, Comoys, all old, all acquired used at excellent prices, or traded for. Too, there are other brands represented that are not so well known, but provided me with a great value, and a great way to fill out my collection so I could always smoke well-rested pipes.

It wasn’t until much later that I began to truly appreciate these pipes for more than just the bargins they presented to a struggling student’s wallet. Many of these pipes have been on the planet far longer than I have. I think of the stories they could tell, the places they have seen. I imagine their previous owners, their makers. What tobaccos had these pipes smoked that I have never heard of or had the opportunity to taste? Where have they travelled? What have they seen? If only pipes could speak.

Not all of my early acquisitions were good ones. Many pipes were traded away almost as soon as they found their way into my hands. Some didn’t smoke well for me, others just didn’t, after all, appeal to me as much as I thought they would while the frenzy of bargain hunting was under way - I never could resist a bargain. Still, these trades allowed me to get other pipes, and my collection continued to grow. As I learned how to restore old pipes, to return a mediocre specimen back to something that approached its original beauty, my appreciation for the pipesmith’s craft became greater. I began to understand that the finish of a great pipe is more than just stain and wood, that a lot of preparation had to be done before the pipe would look its best. I began to appreciate the patina and depth of a pipe that has been smoked and handled for many years, if treated respectfully. There’s no way to duplicate what time has wroght. I learned that, sometimes, what lurked beneath those layers of grime could be spectacularly beautiful, and that all it took was a little care to bring that beauty to the surface.

And, it all started because I was a student with a budget.

When I got my first real job, making my first real money, I began to buy more expensive pipes - new pipes, that had never experienced being smoked by anyone else. I made some poor choices, but some good ones, too. Many of these are still in my collection, still providing me with a lot of enjoyment, and serving as reminders of my own memories that are contained within their briar. These pipes are truly special to me, and always will be, but there is just something about those old pipes that continues to draw me back to them.

Today, I own quite a few pipes that represent the best craftsmanship, the best briar, the finest artistry available. These pipes provide magnificent smoking experiences, and are truly small works of art to hold, to smoke, to prize. There are periods where these pipes get all my attention, are all I smoke. I’m never disappointed by them or the smokes they deliver. I revel in their beauty, their feel in the hand, their exquisitely executed stemwork and precise drilling. I smoke these, and long for nothing.

Yet, once in a while, I hear whispers in my ear, an old pipe calling to me, and I have to take a little voyage through my collection and my memories to find the one tha has something to say to me. I am compelled to take that pipe out, to find a suitable tobacco for it, to commune with it for a time. (Several times, so far, during the writing of this, I’ve had to stop, to listen to my little GBD, to taste the depth of the smoke coming from its decades-seasoned bowl, to gaze into the richness of its deeply colored briar, to reflect for a few moments. I expect this to happen several more times before I finish.)

These old pipes aren’t necessarilly better than the new ones. In fact, many that I own are characterized by less than optimal smoking characteristics. It’s likely, in fact, that the pipes made by today’s best pipesmiths are the finest that have ever been made. None of the old marques could rival the precision in construction that is obtained even in many of the mid-grades available now. Too, today’s best pipe makers seem to care more about seasoning briar, about getting the most out of a block, about making pipes that will deliver the finest smoking experience possible. Despite the many durges played for the brands that have gone the way of all flesh, we live in a time when truly fantastic pipes can be had. There seems to be plenty of great briar available, though we often hear otherwise, and more and more pipes are produced by single craftsmen who take the process from briar selection to final finishing very seriously, putting their very names on the line with each pipe they make. Yesterday’s pipes were probably much less consistent, with the result that the truly bad ones became, at some point, yesterday’s firewood. It’s probable that only the better ones have survived the decades and the scrutiny of critical smokers, but this, of course, is just speculation on my part.

Still, these old classics do offer something special that can not be reproduced by even the finest craftsmen in the world. They offer history. They offer a connection with our heritage as pipe smokers, with those who came before us. The Eltang I smoked earlier today delivered a superb experience, but it’s history is a short one. This GBD, too, provides me with a wonderful smoke, but also much, much more.

Perhaps the greatest value of these old pipes has little to do with their fucntion as pipes, after all. Perhaps the real treasure they offer is their gentle urging to pause for a moment and consider who we are, where we come from, and what it’s taken to get us, the global us, to where we are. What could be more valuable than their soft reminders to stop for a while, just to listen?